Thursday, January 31, 2008

There's just no escape from the Super Bowl

Living as I do in the Sports Capital of the World - at least through Sunday - I no longer have any idea what's going on in the world.

For all I know, the pope has rescinded the celibacy rule, Rush Limbaugh has endorsed Hillary, and plastic toys are now being made in the United States.

I do, however, know that the people in Arizona spelled Tedy Bruschi's name wrong. (Hope I got it right.) That some Mexican media maven in a wedding gown proposed to Tom Brady. (He declined.) And that Bill Belichek wears sandals. (He may be the only coach in the history of the National Football League to do so.)

And thanks to The Boston Globe, at one supremely surreal point, someone was trying to sell two Super Bowl tickets on eBay for $77,000.

Now, we all know that there can be a very W-I-D-E gap between bid and ask, but I did stroll on over to eBay a while ago, and certainly tickets in the $10,000 range do not appear to be out of the norm.


Admittedly, it ain't what it used to be, but there's still a few things you could do with it.

  • An uninsured couple could get pretty nice health insurance for the year.
  • Some of the poor folks risking their lives running space heaters could buy a fair amount of heating oil.
  • A Massachusetts resident could pay his kid's tuition at UMass for a year.
  • You could buy a Hyundai.

I'm guessing that no one in the above categories is paying $10K for a Super Bowl ticket - although some of them are probably going into hock for a new flat-panel, HD-TV so they can watch the game up as close and personal as TV will get you. (Confession: we have a new flat-panel, HD-TV, and it's really great watching football on it. Fortunately, we did not have to go into hock to buy one.)


I'm actually a big believer that - as long as they pay their taxes - scalpers should be allowed to scalp. If someone's willing to pay 10 or 20 times face value for a ticket, the question of sanity only comes down on one side of the transaction, no?

I'm not so wild about the ticket agency scalp-a-ramas, under which the StubHubs, Ticket Masters, Ace and Higs of the world seem to be able to get their grubby automated hands on plentiful tickets for events (like Red Sox games) that I wouldn't mind going to. Who wants to pay $80 for a $26 bleacher seat in Fenway Park? (Just my typing those words $26 bleacher seat probably caused my father to start spinning around in his grave. Yes, Dad, those same seats you used to pay $1 for when we were kids now cost a whole lot more. But the good news is that the seats in the bleachers now have backs - and the Red Sox are one whole hell of a lot better. Still, it was kind of nice to just jump in the car on a Friday night and sail down the MassPike into Boston to take in a game without having to spend one iota of energy plotting your ticket acquisition strategy.)

But even if I grouse about the ticket agencies, I get why sports teams and concert promoters guarantee certain amounts to these bad boys, since it protects them on the downside. (Of course, there hasn't been downside for the Red Sox for quite a while. But a deal's a deal.)

But look at me. It should be all about the Super Bowl and the Patriots and the Perfect Season, and still my thoughts drift to that wondrous day in April when the first screechy little kid from the stands yells "Play Ball."

Back to Super Bowl mania.

The "media outlets" - newspapers and TV stations (haven't had the radio on much lately since I no longer own a car) are so over the top with SuperBowl madness, I really do want to scream.

Shouldn't the big news be the Fed rate cut? Or Mukasey on Waterboarding? Or the latest from Kenya? Or Rudy and John Edwards dropping out of the hunt.

No, it's all about whether Amazon is pre-selling books about the Patriots' 19-0 season (which hasn't quite happened yet; but they're also selling a book about the Giants' Super Bowl win, which hasn't quite happened yet, either).

It's all about whether Plaxico Burress made a prediction or a guarantee that the Giants would win.

It's all about those tickets for sale for $77,000. (That's 7 Hyundais....)

I will admit: I'm going to watch the SB on our new and beautiful TV. I am going to root for the Pats. I even told my friend Marilyn I'd go to the parade with her if the Pats win and it's not too cold. (We'll be right around the corner, so we don't have to go out of our way at all.)

But part of me just wants to holler, 'Wake me when it's over!'

Like it or not, when "your" team is in it, there's no escaping the damned Super Bowl.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Death-by-Craig's List

Other than looking for someone who'd deliver a Christmas tree to my door, I've never really looked at Craig's List. But am I the only person on the face of the earth who imagined that it was sort of a crunchy granola sort of site? I've always pictured it as a forum where a  bunch of counter-cultural, Birkenstock-shod, anti-capitalists trade outgrown Snuglis for acoustic guitars. Where greens sell Volvo's with 396,000 miles on the odometer because they're going carless. Where haiku poets from Austin apartment swap with haiku poets from Cambridge.

But there's a whole lot more going on over there - all kinds of buying and selling, all kinds of trading and bartering, all kinds of sharing and caring, and all kinds of personal stuff.

And does it get any more personal than trying to find someone to kill the wife of the guy you're having an affair with?

The ad that Ann Marie Linscott posted a few months ago was innocuous enough. She was looking for someone for a "freelance job", and a few folks - assuming that this was a freelance writing gig - pinged her for a few more details.

Well, this freelance gig paid a bit better than most freelance writing jobs: $5,000.

I have no idea what the going rate for a hit is, but $5K sees pretty darned low considering the downside: prison and/or eternal damnation. Neither of those options make the price see quite worth it but, then again, it's not the sort of freelance job I'd ever consider pursuing, whatever the price. (Hey, no one  could pay me enough to do a marketing lead generation program, let alone smoke someone.)

The freelancer Linscott was looking for was someone she described as a "silent assassin" to "eradicate" a woman.

Fortunately, at least three of those responding to the initial ad "notified the authorities."

Of course, Craigslist really has no culpability here - the ad wasn't for a "silent assassin" to "eradicate" someone, after all. They do try to keep it legal, and:

"Out of 550 million classified ads posted over 12 years, this is the first such incident that we're aware of," Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "But again, the ad itself was generic, and we're not a party to subsequent private e-mail communications."

Not surprisingly, the husband of the woman on the hit list is co-operating with said authorities - and I heard on the news that the wife is in hiding. When she comes out, that husband sure will have some 'splainin' to do.

This is pretty much a soup-to-nuts, cradle-to-grave "the Internet changes everything" story, as Linscott met her boyfriend online while they were taking a college course together. So they're kind of virtual campus sweethearts. Who says you can't have an authentic college experience online? (Wonder if they met at University of Phoenix.)

I did head over to Craig's List for Boston to see what freelance opportunities there were there.

Well, someone's looking for a freelance floral designer - creative "florally-oriented individual". Well, I'm creative, but I don't know how florally-oriented I am. I like flowers. And I know that an uneven number of stems is better than an even number. And that when you get a bouquet, you shouldn't plunk it in a vase, but separate all the flowers. But I don't know....

Someone wants a freelance recording engineer. No can do.

And someone who produces web content is looking for work. (I might change my listing from "web producer" to "web content writer" if I were you.)

Nothing ambiguous here. No mysterious "freelance" (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) jobs.

Certainly nothing that looks like criminal intent. (And nothing that looks all that crunchy granola, either. Maybe I have to rethink Craig's List.)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Everybody loves a winner? Just ask Kristina Contes.

Living, as I do, in the home of the World Champeens of baseball (the Boston Red Sox); the Super Bowl bound - and still perfect - New England Patriots (18-0, but who's counting?); and the back from the dead Celtics who are current holders of the best record in pro basketball - and reading, as I do, a number of sports blogs - if there's one thing I understand, it's that not everybody loves a winner. (The anti-Patriot blogs are particularly nasty and brutish.)

So I wasn't all that surprised to read about the recent downfall of scrapbooking phenom Kristina Contes, which was written up recently in the Boston Globe.

For those who don't follow the scrapbooking with the same avidity that I do sports, scrapbooking is no longer about your grandmother's pressing her wedding day gardenia between two sheets of waxed paper and gluing it into a big old scrap book alongside the wedding announcement, so that they can decay, yellow, and molder - until 75 years on someone opens the falling apart tome, has a sneezing attack, and tosses the whole thing in the junk.

Nor is it exclusively the ladylike province of nicey-nice moms specializing in reribboned pink and white memory books that are big on hearts, flowers, and kitty-cats. (Although there is plenty of that going on.)

No, like everything else, scrapbooking has taken on some edge, and one of its edgiest (think tattoo and lip stud, not Winnie-the-Pooh sweatshirt) - and most talented - practitioners is one Kristina Contes.

Contes basked in a reputation built on making pages dedicated to her designer handbags, her Converse sneakers, and the word "dude." She showcased her avant-garde designs on websites like, traveled the country teaching classes, and turned down offers to go to Paris, London, and Norway.

"It's kind of like being a rock star," Contes said. "It's not what you think scrapbooking is."

That was before she was named to the Scrapbooking Hall of Fame and incurred the wrath (and scrutiny) of some of the older, more traditional scrapbookers.

Scrapbooking had apparently been maintaining an uneasy peace between its radical elements ( Contes was by no means alone - there's an entire cohort of hip young  scrapbookers) and the more conservative forces in what has become a $2.6B industry. (Yes - that's a B there, not an M.)

They all entered the same contests, went to the same conventions, etc.

In that world, Contes stood out. She created textures with vinyl and made patterns by dabbing bubble wrap in paint. She turned playing cards into mini-scrap pages, cut out curse words from cardboard, and laid out distressed fonts and fish-eye photos. She started a blog, co-wrote a book, and championed scrapbookers - until they turned on her.

The most popular rag in the scrapbooking industry is Creating Keepsakes, which had an attack of the hips and chose Contes as the winner of one of their contests, which got her work published in a book - and her name in CK's Hall of Fame.

Contes, alas, had unknowingly violated a contest rule. Her portfolio contained pictures taken by a friend. Contes was so obviously oblivious to this being a no-no that she contacted Creating Keepsakes to make sure her friend got credit in the book. When the book was published - showing both names - a scrapstorm was unleashed:

Disgruntled scrapbookers besieged the Creating Keepsakes chat room threatening to cancel subscriptions, boycott, and sue. Scrapbooking bloggers compared it to the performance-enhancing drug controversies of major league baseball player Barry Bonds and Olympic track star Marion Jones. Someone wrote that Contes was as polarizing a figure as Martha Stewart.

Contes, herself, felt that she was being stalked on her own blog, which she made private.

All this sounds more than a bit like the blog-o-sphere trashtalking about the Patriots. According to the Patriots' haters, the organization is nothing but a bunch of classless, dirt-ball cheaters, whose season deserves to be asterisked,  and which is owned and operated by the "worm-like" Kraft family. (Who knows, maybe the trash talking anti-Pats are married to the ladies who scrapbook.)

Yes, the Pats did give their haters a bone to gnaw on when their coach was caught breaking a league rule about videotaping, which the anti-Patriots brigade has elevated into "evidence" that the Pats 18-0 season is not because they're a great team, but because they cheat. (Anyone who knows anything about football would realize that the Patriots did not have to resort to cheating to beat the hapless Jets, the team they were caught videotaping.)

And so, those who were uncomfortable with Contes' edge, originality, and talent had the smoking glue-gun they were looking for: she cheated!

The folks at Creating Keepsakes caved in and disqualified Contes from their Hall of Fame.

"We are painfully aware that our error has deeply upset many of you, our cherished readers and scrapbooking partners," wrote editor in chief Brian Tippetts.

Hmmmmm. "Cherished readers". Am I the only one mentally substituting "dear, sweet ladies"?

For a while, Contes swore off of scrapbooking, but she's back.

"Scrapbooking," ," Contes said she realized, "can be whatever the hell you want it to be. It can be messy, it can be angry, it can be angsty, it can be just you."

Spoken like a true winner.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Lost in Spaceship - flying high on Virgin Galactic

Time for my periodic rant on the wretched excess lifestyles of the rich and not necessarily famous.

This time it's in response to Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic announcing its new spaceship, which will be offering space flights of fancy for $200K (which was reported by Reuters the other day).

"We really do want to have a situation where hundreds of thousands of people who want to experience space travel are able to do so," said Branson at a media event at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

I have to say that, as wretched excess goes, this doesn't bother me as much as $40M mansions, $2M private submarines, and $100 bottles of water. There is still, after all these years, something magical about a spaceflight, and I can understand how people would really lust after it.

While it is, of course,  plenty show-offy to drop this kind of money  - as Branson himself has noted, "Even though the dollar isn't worth much anymore, $200,000 is still too expensive for the majority of people" - it just doesn't seem quite as pretentious and "I've got mine" as some of the other ways of letting the world know that you can afford to drop big bucks on this kind of experience.  All those kids who grew up fantasizing about becoming an astronaut...hey, why not?

And Branson is projecting that, within five years, "the price would come down fairly dramatically." (I'm guessing my definition of "fairly dramatically" is more dramatic than his.)

Over 200 folks have already signed up for a two hour trip, which means you just go up and down, a la Alan Shephard , rather than orbiting the earth, a la John Glenn.

Stephen Hawking is one of those who've plunked down a hefty deposit, and a big part of me says 'good for him.' Talk about someone who's starry eyed and obviously a life long lover of the extra-terrestrial. The other names of note listed in the article were Victoria Principal, who starred on Dallas, and designer Philippe Starck.

One of the lesser known sign-ups "bought the flight instead of splurging on a Ferrari, as he can't drive" - reason enough and, as I said, not as damned ostentatious as gunning the engine of a flashy car (which is pretty much all you could do if you don't drive).

Another fellow who'll be heading due-up tried and failed to get into the astronaut program. Again, reason enough. (And, again, good for him.)

Of course $200K is a lot of money, but Richard Branson is a man of the people compared to what I saw over on Space Adventures. Their specialty seems to be longer trips on Russian spacecraft.  A few years back, an American businessmen reportedly forked over $20M to his tripsky with the Russkies.

$20M. Ding-ding-ding. That is some wretched excess. Not that I don't indulge in plenty of nonsense  - whatever my paltry means allows - but $20M could do a lot of earth-bound good.

While Space Adventure - with a "vision to open spaceflight and the space frontier to private citizens" - plans on sending plenty of folks aloft in suborbital flights similar to the Virgin Galactic ones, they've also got some nifty packages that will separate the hoi-polloi with mere chump change from the true show-offs.

For  $30-40 million, you can hitch a ride on a Russian Soyuz to the International Space Station, where you get to cool your jets for a week before getting ferried back to earth with the crew who's been there for 6 months.

For a bit more - $45-$55 million - you can boldly go where no one other other than bona fide astronauts have gone and do a space walk.

You can also craft your own personal mission objective.

Whatever you desire, Space Adventures can help develop a customized mission for you.  The possibilities are only bound by your imagination. 

Mark my words:  It's just a matter of time before some a-hole hedge fund manager decides he wants to spend a few of his hard earned dollars on a bachelor party in space - replete with hand-rolled cigars, whatever-malt Scotch, and lap dances.

(And remember, you heard it here first.)

Hey, it's only money.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Jerome Kerviel Places a Bet or Two (that's one imprudent employee, alright)

Remember how we used to gasp at the magnitude of the 1995 Barings' fiasco, when trader Nick Leeson managed to lose $1.4B doing a bit of unauthorized dabbling in Asian futures markets.

A new record has just been set by a trader who blew just a little too hot on the dice, and managed to lose the bank a cool $7.18B placing bad bets.

What do you expect from an employ whose last name has as an anagram Evil - or Vile - Rek.(An one more "v" in there and we could call him Evil Ker-vivel.)

According to the AP account I read (picked up by the Malaysia Star), Jerome Kerviel's

...motivations were "totally irrational,'' netting him no personal financial gains. It remains unclear whether he was acting out of malevolence, ambition or some other reason.

"No personal financial gain" - I guess that bébé did not need a new pair of chaussures.

His motivation? "Malevolence" and "some other reason" still appear operative, but "ambition" - that depends on whether he wanted to continue with a career in banking or seek fame and fortune elsewhere.


All I ever had to deal with was a guy in my group who kept trying to expense dry cleaning bills for short trips, and who insisted on picking up the drinking tabs for everyone he was on the road with.

The letter from Société Générale letting the world know what happened is a classic:

It is my duty to inform you that Société Générale has been a victim of a serious internal fraud committed by an imprudent employee in the Corporate and Investment Banking Division.

Talk about Gallic understatement: "an imprudent employee."

I've just traveled such small-time circuits. Imprudent employees I had to put up with left hostile, imprudent voice mails on the phones of my boss' peer; imprudently e-mailed off-color jokes to a list that included the office prude; and imprudently faxed the names and numbers of everyone in our division to a head-hunter (and imprudently left the telltale fax on a machine in the hall where someone from HR found it). Now that's imprudent.

$7.18B I would call insane, or criminal, or criminally insane. (A leader of the SocGen union commented that Kerviel "might have lost his mind a bit.''

Un peu. There's that Gallic understatement again. I'm kind of liking it, now that I'm getting used to it.

The SocGen letter continues:

The individual in question has been dismissed and legal action will be taken against him.

Good luck with the reparations. You'd have to garnish an awful lot of paychecks to make up the $7.18B, especially when Jerome may end up in the Bastille making license plates.

The Group's Board of Directors approved my decision to terminate the mandates of the managers, including the executive managers, involved in the breakdown of the supervision systems.

"Terminate the mandates of the managers..."

Wonder what that means?

I worked for one company that regularly jettisoned a senior manager, and the letter always came out that "X has left the company to pursue entrepreneurial activities." Thus we knew that their mandate had been seriously terminated.

(The AP article states that Kerviel's managers were dismissed when he was.)

One would have thought that a bank the size and reputation of Société Générale would have checks and balances in place that would have prevented this from happening, mais non.

As for Nick Leeson, we learn from - what else - his eponymous web site that he did some serious and highly dramatic time:

...six and half years in a gang-ridden Singaporean jail, in conditions that defy belief, while at the same time, his wife left him and he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

Against all odds, Nick Leeson survived and now fully recovered from cancer...

And talk about happily ever after, he's written a couple of books: Rogue Trader (which was made into a movie) and Back from the Brink. Back from the Brink. He's remarried, is a motivational speaker (!), and manages the Galway Ireland Football Club.

So there is hope for Jerome Kerviel. If Nick Leeson could resurrect his career - and, in fact, erect it on the foundation of his fraud - chances are that Jerome Kerviel, when he comes to his senses (and gets out of jail), will have some story to tell. At minimum, he should be able to find work in risk management, no?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Celebrity Apprentice

I wasn't going to watch, but a couple of weeks ago, I accidentally caught the last couple of minutes of The Apprentice - just in time to see Nadia Comaneci get fired. (Nadia Comaneci! I remember when she was the darling little Romanian gymnast, balance beaming in her little pigtails all the way to Olympic Gold. Now she's a washed up "celebrity" trying unsuccessfully to avoid getting "fired" by Donald Trump.)

So I went and tuned in an episode of The Celebrity Apprentice.

I struggled a bit at first, since I wasn't all that familiar with a number of the celebs.

Sure, I knew Nadia. And the guy who played Big Pussy on The Sopranos. My husband, who has a surprisingly excellent eye for spotting actors, recognized Marilu Henner, who played Elaine on Taxi. (Which shouldn't have been all that much of a surprise, given that he's probably seen every episode a dozen times.) I knew who Lennox Lewis was. And Omarosa, who became a celebrity for being on The Apprentice - talk about self-referencing - and is now, apparently, such a big celeb, that she can go by her first name only - like Oprah, or Hillary, or Rosie.

And, yes, I recognized Stephen Baldwin as one of the lesser Baldwins - although, I guess other than Alec, they're all lesser Baldwins. And I knew the name Gene Simmons, but would have recognize him better if he was in his Kiss kabuki - NOT THAT I AM NOW OR EVER WAS A KISS FAN - but I knew who he was. (I was thinking that he was invited on because his dye-job and hair-do make Donald Trump's look like an ad for Preference by L'Oreal, but then I looked up his Bio on the show's site, and he's oh, so much more. In fact, I'm guessing he is second to no one - including Donald - in his ability to self-promote and self-aggrandize).

Oh, and my apologies to Mr. Trump for referring to him as Donald. Even Jim Cramer, who was one of the judges this week, used the respectful "Mr. Trump" when addressing the master. ("It's insolence to you, Mr. Trump," he advised Mr. Trump when Gene Simmons all but dared MT to fire him by ignoring his near-command not to bring Omarosa and Jenny Finch - whoever she is - back to the boardroom for the round in which "someone will be fired.")

I looked her up and Jenny, like Nadia, is an Olympic athlete - a softball player - and she has a son named Ace. (Poor kid.)

The other celebs, well, I was at something of a loss, but was able to glean who they are on line.

Piers Morgan - tabloid editor. Tito Ortiz - extreme fighter. Carol Alt - supermodel (are all models supermodels?). Trace Adkins - C&W signer. Nely Galan - TV producer. Tiffany Fallon - Playboy centerfold.

All I can say is, celebrities aren't what they used to be in my day, when there weren't that damn many of them and you'd actually be at least vaguely familiar with who they were. In those long ago days, before there were People, and Us, and celebrity gossip TV shows, celebrities were people who were actually famous for doing something - like Conrad Hilton, founder of the eponymous hotel chain and author of Be My Guest - rather than people like Paris Hilton who are famous for being celebrities.

For those unfamiliar with the central theme of The Apprentice, the wannabe's are split into teams. Each episode, the teams are assigned to a business task - renovate an apartment and sell it; flog Trump bottled water; come up with a marketing campaign for something or another. One team wins, one team loses, on either objective grounds (who sold the most whatever), or subjective grounds (whose work did the judges like better).

The project manager of the losing team has to chose the two weakest members (or the two he/she'd most like to see fired). The three then make an appearance on camera, in camera, before Mr. Trump and his advisors to make the case why they should stay and someone else should be fired.

The series culminates with two finalists duking it out, and the winner of the final task getting an offer to work in the Trump organization.

The task on the night I watched was coming up with a campaign to promote Kodak's new ink/printers.

Two Kodak managers ruled for Team A, which had quite sensibly tried to promote ink/printers. Team B - led by Gene Simmons - had not so sensibly tried to rebrand Kodak at a very high level of abstraction.

Gene Simmons argued back, telling the Kodak folks to kiss off, stating "I'm more qualified to make a decision" about how to market their products than they were.

Well, as a marketing consultant, I do feel that sometimes the outside voice is more qualified than the insiders, but in this case...

I am not likely to turn on another episode of Celebrity Apprentice. Bad enough watching the desperate suck-ups who really want to work for "Mr. Trump", let alone a bunch of quasi-celebs who I believe are playing to make money for their favorite charities, but who mostly seem to be playing to get their mush in front of the camera, and their quasi-recognized names (and mushes) a little better recognized. (At least I'm guessing that they're not playing to actually get a job working for the Trump organization, although I'm sure a few of them could use the job.)

As for the "Mr. Trump," maybe it's just that I've spent my career in the informal halls of high technology, but - other than when I worked at Wang, and everyone called and referred to Dr. Wang as Dr. Wang - I've let to work anyplace where everyone wasn't on a first name basis with everyone else.

Mr. Trump?

I don't even entirely, 100% "get" why everyone other than wife and mother has to call the president of the United States "Mr. President" (or "Madam President," as the case may well turn out to be), let alone all this pseudo-respectful, kow-towing to Donald Trump.

Sorry, Donald.

When Jim Cramer - who must really want to get on one of the major networks in prime time to appear on this show, rather than stay satisfied with his market-hours screech-fests on MSNBC - said "It's insolence to you, Mr. Trump", The Apprentice just completely jumped the shark into the campiest of self-parodies.

In any event, that's it for me and Celebrity Apprentice. I have fired myself from watching. I don't care what half-baked celebrity is left standing - although I must say that based on what I saw in the episode I did watch, please, nobody tell me if Stephen Baldwin ends up the winner.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

On the Bookshelf: Test-Drive Your Dream Job

I have to say, I was fully prepared to resist the charms of Test-Drive Your Dream Job by Brian Kurth, fearing that it would be yet another narcissistic harangue about how you must find your passion OR ELSE live a rotten, boring, doomed worklife.

But Test-Drive ("A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding and Creating The Work You Love") strikes me as a refreshingly honest how-to book, with a lot of practical tips for anyone who wants to put a toe or two in the water of their fantasy job.

The refreshing honesty comes from Kurth's admissions about just how damned hard it is to leave the comfort of a well-paying job to do something else. He himself needed the boot-in-the-ass from the failed (which naturally failed before it made him rich) - and the concomitant boot-in-the-ass that his partner got the same day from his job - before he dared to try something new.

And he still didn't make an overnight transition, but worked on his idea - finding a way to help people find their dream jobs- while working at a job (sales for a small wine distributor) that put him closer to, and gave him time for, what he was more interested in than tech marketing.

What Kurth was interested in was Vocation Vacations, which connects job-dreamers with places where, and people with whom, they can pay to hang out for a few days to get a feel for the job they've been fantasizing about for the past couple of decades.

Again, in talking about what a vocation vacation will do for you, Kurth is refreshingly honest - there's no oversell, no "miracle occurs here," just the truth about what might happen, which is anything from finding the Mr. Right of vocations to deciding that, no, you'd really hate being a dog groomer. And, of course, all sorts of in between possibilities.

Taking a vocation vacation makes a ton of sense - certainly a lot more sense than sitting around romanticizing about how wonderful it would be to run a B&B in Vermont, then up and jettisoning everything you have in order to do so, only to find out you'd forgotten that running a B&B means washing a lot of someone else's dirty linen.

What I like about Kurth's approach is that, while he may well be a romantic at heart - and I'm guessing he is - he's also intensely practical.

For starters, he doesn't discount the fears that hold people back. He understands them, and acknowledges that they're real.

There's none of the preachy, dare to be great nonsense about brushing aside your fears, just common sense on what you're likely to go through when you decide you'd rather shoe horses than balance someone's books - including the "exposure fear" when you start talking out loud about what you'd really, really like to do. He doesn't sugar coat how wonderful everything's going to be, he gives some examples of failures - business and personal (including, by the way, his own painful break-up with his long-term partner).

Kurth is also a gradualist, outlining how to go about taking baby steps, if that's what will work better for you than gigantic leaps of faith.

Here are a few jobs from the quite broad and diverse range of vocation vacations listed on his web site.

Alpaca or Bison Rancher
Baseball: Announcer, GM, Marketer
B&B Owner (of course!)
Bookstore Owner (or course!)
Car Critic
Cheesemonger (gotta love that word)
Fishing Guide
Pro Wrestling Ringside Announcer
Sword Maker

The ones I drilled down on all seemed to be in the $1,000 range (plus or minus) for two-days on-the-job with a mentor.

I think this is a really great idea. (Maybe I'll head to Tennessee to try out baseball announcing. But, hey, I'm already pretty much doing what I want to be doing: paying the bills through marketing consulting - which involves a ton of writing - and creative writing.)

There's a wonderful quote in the book:

"It's never too late to be who you might have been."

The quote if from George Eliot - and talk about someone who had to overcome to odds, eh? At least now, woman don't have to change their names to male names to find work. (I do have a friend, a short story writer, who no longer goes by her "real" first name, which pretty much ID's her as someone in her 50's. She changed her nom de plume to a peppier, more youthful version of her dated, somewhat clunky and out of fashion given name. She attributes the change to her work being taken more seriously in college literary mags where the readers are young - and where she now finds more acceptance.)

I don't 100% buy the George Eliot quote. There are plenty of things that someone might have been that they are, realistically speaking, too late for. Someone in his 60's is not going to be an NFL quarterback.

Which is not to say that people can't get closer to something that approximates what they might have been if they'd followed a different path.

Or they just might find themselves coming, in middle age, to an all new something or other that they never would have conceived of 20 or 30 years earlier. (Cheesemaker, anyone?)

In any case, the idea of Vocation Vacations is terrific, and it certainly looks - from the site - as if it's taking off.

And if you can't take off a couple of days, and plunk down the money for a paid outing doing something else/something fun, you can still plunk down a few bucks to buy the book, which is quite good. Anyone toying with the idea of remaking themselves by a lot or a little will get something out of the book.


The book is written by Brian Kurth, "with Robin Simons", and I'll bet some props go to Robin for the accessible, inviting tone and voice throughout.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How much is that doggy in the window worth?

Once again, I had a good time reading Fortune's 101 Dumbest Moments in Business for 2007. A few I have blogged on, but a few real beauts I somehow failed to notice. Just how did I miss the news that rapper Jay-Z's clothing line came out a "faux fur" jacket made out of dog (or is it dawg?) hair? Or the fact that Eli Lilly is marketing Prozac for dogs. (Not that I haven't known a few dogs that could stand a few doses.)

But the dog news in Fortune's round up that really got me going was the bit about Leona Helmsley's leaving $12M to her pup.

Not surprisingly, Leona's dog was a Maltese, preciously named Trouble.

Let's face it, it's hard to imagine someone leaving that kind of money to a black Lab named Buddy.

No, I'm guessing that when the big bucks are left to furry friends, they go to ankle-biting yappers - or cats. (Not that all little dogs are ankle-biting yappers - Alice and Bob, my sister-in-law and her husband - have two Bichons that are quite loveable - but I tend to be a big dog kind of gal.)

Twelve million.

That's a log of Milk Bones and Dog Chow, isn't it?

In the wake of the announcement, some of those who knew Trouble stepped out to trash talk the pooch.

Helmsley's former housekeeper, Zamfira Safra, who was apparently stiffed in the will, claimed that Trouble was nothing but, and that she "was bitten dozens of times." From the Daily News article that quoted the housekeeper, we also learn that Trouble received the largest individual trust from the will - and that Leona "believed her late husband, Harry, communicated with her through the dog."

Presumably Harry suggested the amount.

And the fact that Leona was communing with Harry via Trouble (kind of) explains the housekeeper's report that:

Helmsley even shared her double king-size bed with Trouble, Sfara said, and lots of kisses.

"She would lick the dog tongue to tongue," she said. "It was unnatural. It was unhealthy."

Well, yes, but if Leona actually thought it was Harry, then... let's hear it for geriatric love. (Leona was in her late eighties.)

The $12M will come in handy for Alvin Rosenthal, who inherited the pooch, given that:

Trouble was dressed in pricey outfits and sported a diamond collar. The dog's chef-prepared meals - steamed vegetables and steamed or grilled chicken and fish - arrived in porcelain bowls on a silver tray.

The housekeeper reported that she had to "get down on my knees and feed the dog with my two fingers."

Given that Leona neglected to leave anything to a couple of her grandchildren, I'm certainly not surprised that she left me out, even though I actually almost sort of met her one time.

My friend Michele and I were in New York on business, and corporate travel had screwed up our reservations. It was December, and you try getting a hotel in Manhattan a week before Christmas. Anyway, the best that we could do was rooms in the Gramercy Park Hotel, which was in the midst of being converted from a men's residential hotel to a hotel-hotel. (Did I say "midst"? Actually, it was very early on in the conversion, and the old geezers in bathrobes and slippers were much in evidence on the elevators.)

Unwilling to face the hotel quite yet once we were done with business for the day, we popped into the Helmsley Palace for a drink.

Here we were, two bedraggled and weary businesswoman - it was raining, we were tired, etc. - but I didn't think we looked all that out place in the Helmsley Palace.

In any case, before we had our drink we decided to take a little tour of the public areas of the Palace - and Leona, for whatever reason, decided to follow us around. And I do mean follow us around, with a look of distaste on her face and a crinkled up nose that one would have thought she might have reserved for street crazies who'd wandered in.

We were obviously working women, and not workin' girls, in our iron-wear business suits, floppy bow ties, and trench coats, lugging our deadweight briefcases.

I guess the only thing that kept Leona from directly confronting us - and bouncing us out of there - was her fear that we were actually staying there.

Years later, when Leona was sent to jail for tax fraud, I often thought of her in a less than posh jail cell - far worse than our dreary rooms in the Gramercy Park - and of her being followed around by suspicious prison guards. Hah!

$12 million left to a dog.

I guess when you compare it to the full estate - valued at between $4B and $8B - it's the equivalent of the rest of us leaving a 50 pound bag of Gravy Train, a new flea color, and a squeaky toy to our favorite doggy.

The bulk of Helmsley's estate, by the way, goes to her charitable foundation, which places the foundation in the Top Ten. It will be interesting to see what gets done with the money.

And if you're interested, Leona's art, silver, and furniture collections will be auctioned for charity by Christie's throughout the year. You may be too late for the silver, which went last week, but there's plenty of time to get your bids in on the rest.

I will be taking a pass.

Having toured the glittery excess of the Helmsley Palace, and having learned of Leona's strange relationship with Trouble, I can safely assume that her tastes wouldn't have all that much overlap with mine.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Pink slips a comin' at CitiGroup

God knows I've never worked anyplace with 375,000 employees, which is the number of jobs at CitiGroup. That 4,200 number that will be cut - well, it's a mere 1.1 percent of the population, they probably have that kind of turnover in a quarter.

But even though I spent most of my career in smallish companies - in the 20 - 750 employee range - I did do a couple of stints in what were, by my standards, largish firms: Wang (30,000 employees at peak) and Genuity (not quite sure how many, 2,000-3,000 maybe).

Whether the company I was keeping was large or small, I lived (mostly) through dozens of lay-off rounds, and they were not just quantitatively different (4 people losing their job rather than 400, let alone 4,000), but they were qualitatively different as well.

In small companies, you got the sense that something was going on: long faces, closed door meetings, etc., but typically nothing was announced up front. So employees might speculate, but unless they were in the know, they didn't really "know" the timing or the magnitude.

But we were generally pretty good at figuring out the "who." First round head-rollers tended to be those of the misfits and the generally disliked (unless they were clearly stellar performers, which wasn't generally the case). In later rounds, those laid off were likely to be those who'd made a recent dumb political move (say, going over your boss's head to make the case that you should have his job - something which I actually witnessed) and those who were less well connected to core functions or the core network (so there was no one to protect them).

At Genuity and Wang, things were different.

These were both public companies, and the lay-offs were typically announced well in advance - usually tied to piss-poor quarterly results. So we all knew the magnitude and timing.

Let the speculation begin!

Nothing cut into productivity like knowing a lay-off was coming. Rumors would start to fly, and you tended to spend a good portion of each day with different sources of rumors.

They were only laying off people in certain functions. People working on certain products. People above (or below - mostly below) a certain level. People hired after (or before) a certain date. People in certain geographic locations.

Of course, some of these may have made sense: cut non-profitable or end-of-life products; close down some facilities. But, in general, lay-offs tended to take the easy way out and were be pretty much across the boards.

At Wang, when impending lay-offs were announced they always said that the lay-offs would occur before a certain date - which we correctly translated to mean they would occur the day before that certain date.

While the rumors swirled, I'd say that the average workday of real work, by the average employee, decreased by about 50%. As lay-off day got closer, that number started moving up. By the time the pallets full of "personal effects" boxes showed up outside the cafeteria at Wang HQ, work-work was down to about 20%, because at that point we knew how many people in our facility were going to get hit. (Each person let go was allocated three boxes, so we could count the number of pallets, which each held 200 flattened down cartons as I remember, and do the rest of the math.)

A week or so after the pallets arrived, they were divvied up and placed next to the admins' cubes. Thirty cartons next to your admins' cube meant 10 people in your group were getting the hook.

Time for a full work stoppage.

Once it was time for a full heart stoppage: on the eve of the Great Wang Lay-off of December 1989, a fellow on my floor (but in another Tower) had a heart attack and died at work. I didn't really know this guy, but one of my friends worked in the cube next to his, so I knew who he was. We never did find out whether he was on the hit list or not.

Most of us at Wang worked in cubicles, but the rule was that no one would actually get laid off while in their cube, so someone would come, tap you on the shoulder, and walk you over to one of the closed-door offices on the periphery of the floor. (One guy in my group was from Russia, and he told me that when they came for him he felt like it was the KGB.)

When there was a mass lay-off at Wang - and most of them seemed to be plenty massive by my standards - people would stand on their desks, heads above cube-top level, and broadcast the names of those who were being let go. "They just came for Alice." "They just took Jay."

If it hadn't been so painful, it would have been pretty funny.

Buddies were assigned to help the goners pack up and haul their three boxes to their cars. Tears. Hugs. Nervous laughter. Cursing. Promises to stay in touch. (When my friend Cathy was laid off, she rolled down her car window and spit at the Wang Towers as she left the parking lot which, nearly twenty years later, still makes me laugh.)

There'd be some sort of watering hole gathering in the evening. More tears, hugs, nervous laughter, cursing, promising. "We're the lucky ones," the folks laid off would say, but while this was always true on one level - a foundering business in real trouble is not a fun place to work - it was so patently false on another.

Who wants to be the one just labeled expendable? Who wants to have to go home and face the family and tell them that they lost their job? Who wants to collect unemployment and have to look for a new job under involuntary separation circumstances? Who wants to have to be the new kid on the block, find a way in somewhere, new lunch buddies, etc?

Yeah, it has a way of working out, but that's not what you're thinking when someone else is chipping in for your Bud Lite because you're the one who's going to have to stretch that severance pay.

Back at work, within a few days, things would soon fall into the "new normal" routine.

Then there'd be the next bad quarter, the next job cuts announced, the next round of speculation (and the attendant productivity hit)...

I can't pretend to really know what's going on in the minds of rank and file employees at CitiGroup, but I think I have a pretty good idea. It's not pretty. It's not fun. It's not easy.

And, as I believe has been proven, trying to right a company by hacking at expenses and lopping off heads doesn't really help save the day.

Best wishes and my sympathies to the CitiGroup folks who have a rough couple of months ahead of them.


Post script:

I don't know what Chuck Prince at CitiGroup's walking around money was when he got fired, but Stanley O'Neal at Merrill got a farewell gift package worth $167M. Okay, it wasn't all cash, but let's pretend for a moment it was. They could have gifted old Stan with $67M and written a severance check for $100K to each of the 1,000 employees who lost their job.

Explain to me again why the world doesn't work that way?

Friday, January 18, 2008

One Week Job

Earlier this week, The Metro - one my prime content sources this week, it seems - had an article by Megan Foley on one Sean Aiken, who's shtick is something called One Week Job, in which he's been taking a wildly wide variety of jobs for a week each, in hopes of figuring out what he wants to do for a career.

First off, I will say that I'm really happy that I'm not a member of Generation Y (o whatever they're calling the twenty-somethings). All that need to be passionate. All that need to self-promote. It just makes this middle aged curmudgeon exhausted just thinking about it.

It was much easier in my day, when we looked for a job/company/colleagues that we liked well enough that we didn't start getting depressed mid-way through Sunday at the thought of having to get up and go to work on Monday. (I only had one job in my professional career where I had this feeling. It was at Wang. I should have considered it a one week job, but instead I toughed it out for two years, seven months, and eighteen days.) Mostly, I liked my work - it's been very interesting, reasonably creative, definitely challenging. And, if none of those options actually turned into anything, I did make great life friends along the way.

Of course, maybe looking at a bunch of middle aged burnouts who weren't Las Pasionarias about their careers is why the Gen-Yers are so determined not to settle in for something that they don't love out loud. (Of course, let's check in with them when they're in their thirties and have kids and mortgages. I mean, how will the world run if everyone has to be in a job they just love, love, love? How will we get our car insurance? Who will pluck Perdue chickens? Who'll be a Mad Hatter fume-breathing dry cleaner? Of equal "of course", it's no surprise that middle-class Gen Y's will take a look at their middle-age Boomer parents and ask themselves how worthwhile it is taking a job you don't love, love, love when it won't even bring you much by way of job security.)

Back to Sean Aiken, who is actually doing something pretty interesting, and will, no doubt, get a book out of his efforts, so he won't have to get a boring job. He'll be a writer! (I'm probably just jealous.)

With 42 weeks down Sean has been a lot of things - some more glamorous than others. This week, he's worked with a Hollywood producer. Other weeks, he's worked in real estate, a chiropractor's office, as a martial arts instructor, fashion buyer, vintner, pizza maker (on Cape Cod), aquarium guide, baker... And, naturally, he's "built his brand" with media coverage along the way.

I didn't make my way through them all, but as a central conceit, this one works, and the posts on his blog that I brushed through were kind of fun. (And under the heading of small world, the job as a baker was arranged by VocationVacations, which, a few weeks ago sent me a book to review - Test Drive Your Dream Job - which was written by their founder, Brian Kurth. I will be reviewing the book and posting on it next week sometime.)

Anyway, go check out Sean's site, and if you have a one week job you'd like to offer him, he's still got 10 weeks to go.

Me, I worked as a temp at one point, so I had more than a few one week jobs, but they all sort of blurred into the same generic office thing  - Oxfam-architecture firm-blue jean factory. And I did have a two-hour job once, working as a waitress at Vallee's, a now defunct New England steak house chain. My college roommate and I worked one shift, headed out to Friendly's for lunch, and decided that working there was just too horrible for words. We flipped a coin to see who'd call in and quit. I will say they were pretty pissed off when we showed up a week later to collect our checks for $8...

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Vaio, Vaio, Vaio

Well, I needed a new laptop because my not so trusty old HP Pavilion was, like the Wicked Witch of the West, melting. (Well, the laptop wasn't exactly melting, but the power jack seemed to be melting something or other onto the motherboard, and the machine was running a very high fever and behaving quite erratically.)

So, I read up on laptops on line and, since I wanted immediate gratification and none of this ordering and waiting a day, took myself off to Best Buy to best buy a Vaio.

Yes, yes, yes, I know before anyone tells me that I paid a premium for something that looks nice and is lightweight. If anyone had ever told me I'd get sucked in by something pretty and thin, well, I'd have replied that I would never be so superficial. But if you have to look at something day in, day out. If you have to lug something, day in day out. Why not have it be something that's nice to look at, and doesn't make you bend over like ancient peasant woman hauling a laundry basket when it's on your back.

And the price premium, when amortized over the life of the laptop - which, I know, I know, will be all too brief - still comes out to a buck or two a week.

I'm worth it.

They didn't have all the colors available - I would have liked the navy blue - but I went for the gold, which sounds bling-y and show-y but is actually muted and quite nice.

I happily overpaid for my Vaio on a Saturday and brought it home, ooh-ing and ahh-ing all the way.

On Sunday, I experienced my first blue screen of death.

Well, me no like, but I had a lot to do before I headed out to Syracuse on business, so I brushed it aside.

On Monday evening, I had not only a few blue screens of death, but a freeze up (accompanied by an ominous ding-ding-ding) the likes of which I hadn't experienced since Windows 3.0.

Too bad I was leaving for Syracuse at dawn on Tuesday.

The Vaio did not heal itself on the way.

Blue screens of death. Freeze ups. Black screens of deather. A popping noise. (Yikes.)

By Wednesday night, the top of my skull was flying off and I was screeching, "Why, oh why, oh why oh/Why did I buy a Vaio?"

Immediately on my return to Boston, I jetted out to Best Buy to return the damaged goods.

They took it, bless them, no questions asked, and without expending once iota of energy trying to convince me to let them diagnose the problem.

They accepted my diagnosis: there's something wrong with this hardware. I want a new one.

So now I have my new Vaio, and so far, so good.

It's lovely to look at. I like the keyboard and the screen. And I'm apparently one of the minority who actually likes Vista.

In keeping with my light and airy laptop, I find the Vista look and feel light and airy.

I also like the 2007 Office applications - now that I've figured out where to find things like wordcount, save as, delete rows, new slide, etc. There's nothing radically different about the functionality. They just look better. (They're prettier, if not thinner.)

Oh, there are some Vista annoyances - like these special security boxes that pop up and ask you whether you really want to do something - but I'm sure I can figure out how to rid myself of them.

I may live to regret both of these statements but:

I like my new Vaio.

I like my new Vista.

Thin and beautiful. Who'd have thought my head would be turned?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

This is not your father's junkyard

Well, actually, my father didn't have a junkyard, but you know what I mean....

When I was a kid, there were junkmen.

The city DPW picked up garbage, which was stuff like orange peels, coffee grounds, and egg shells, wrapped up in newspaper and tied with a string. (Later, we started using plastic bags for garbage.)

Loose paper trash was burned in a barrel in the back yard or, later, in an indoor burner called, I believe, a "calcinator." I loved burning trash, especially in the winter dusk, when I'd wrap myself in one of my father's old Navy blankets and pretend I was a Displaced Person hovering around the DP camp fire.

Newspapers and magazines were saved for something called a "paper drive", typically run by the Boy Scouts a couple of times a year.

Hard trash was picked up by the junkman. Our was primarily the can man, coming by once a month or so to pick up baskets full of bottles and cans, but you pretty much left out anything that had gotten too old and worn out to repair, and Archie, our can man, would haul it away.  (Archie's side line was an "antique store" which we'd pass on the way to visit the family cemetery. [You have to be Irish to really get this - the cemetery visits, not the can man.] We'd always laugh, imagining the high quality antiques Archie picked up in our neighborhood - irredeemably broken vacuum cleaners, record players that just played 78's, bikes that had been run over in the driveway.)

Then there were scrap yards. You passed them occasionally when you were driving through the neighborhoods with lots of factories and warehouses in them. Or over by the railroad tracks. Or on the outskirts of town.

Scrap yards had towering heaps of twisted metal, totaled cars, ancient refrigerators, lots of rust.

One of the big scrap outfits in Worcester was Abdow Scrap, which I know only because they sponsored a team in the Ty Cobb Little League. Their uniform colors were gray with navy blue, not rust, and I would have rooted for them rather than for National Standard (gray with red) if the boys I had crushes on and, later, my brothers, hadn't played for National Standard. I don't recall what, exactly, they were the national standard of, but I'm guessing plumbing.

Time marches on...

Scrap yards are now big business. Big legitimate business.

All those rusting cars and old rebar are worth a lot of money. As is copper wiring, and just about anything else made with a metal.

Industrial growth in India and China is revving up demand for scrap metal, and the US is one of the biggest suppliers.

We may not make produce much steel these days, but we do produce an awful lot of recyclable steel.

All described in a wonderful article by John Seabrook  in The New Yorker (January 14th) on the scrap metal business.

Read all about Metal Management, which is gobbling up scrap yards - starting with the one that was run by John Gotti's son-in-law before he went to prison. (Carmine Agnello sired the three fine young men who "starred" in the wildly risible reality show Growing Up Gotti, which I found horrifically fascinating for a few episodes a while back.)

Here's some of what you'll learn in Seabrook's article:

  • Steel scrap prices have scooted up from $75 a ton in 2001 to nearly$300 a ton in 2007.
  • Copper soared briefly to $400 a pound in 2006.

No wonder thieves are pulling copper and bronze off of public monuments.l There's gold in them thar hills.

But you know how we really know it?

The CEO of Metal Management, Daniel Dienst, is a former investment banker who, when working on the job of restructuring MM had what he describes as a "classic epiphany" - perhaps becoming the first person in the history of the scrap business to have one.

I said to myself, "Wow, this is a great business - and no one knows about it!" You are the major raw material for steelmaking, and you are sitting on top of the richest scrap resource in the world, right here in the U.S.A. - that's a great place to be. You have these characters; it's gritty. But it's also green- you're taking a wastelike product and making something utilitarian out of it. There's something noble about it.

Well, Dienst is probably the first person in the history of investment banking to use the word "noble" and really mean it. But what's really interesting about this is the transformation of the junkyard  business from the province of immigrants and working stiffs who sent their sons off to college so they wouldn't have to work in junkyards (and/or the province of goons like Carmine Agnello) to the province of the suits.

That and the fact that the U.S.A. - once the mighty industrial giant, manufacturer to the world - can now be billed as the "richest scrap resource in the world."

That world - not to mention the business sub-world within it - is indeed a never ending source of wonder to me.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Guinea Pigging

Occasionally, I pick up The Metro, a little ripped from the headlines, limited attention span freebie newspaper. One thing I generally look through is their Medical Research Directory, which regularly runs ads looking for folks to participate in clinical studies.

Yesterday's edition was looking for:

  • People over 18 who suffer from social anxiety - but who don't suffer from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or recent drug or alcohol abuse. No money, but they will pay for your transportation or parking. It looks like it's at Mass General Hospital, which is just down the street, so I wouldn't even get that. Plus, while I am on occasion self-conscious, I wouldn't exactly say I avoid social interactions, relationships or jobs because of it.  Scratch that one.
  • Healthy, obese people between 18 and 65 years of age. Once again, no money, but drugs, blood tests, electrocardiograms, nutrition counseling, and clinical visits at Boston Medical Center for free. (I was going to write "all the blood tests, etc. you can eat", but that would be wrong.) In any case, once again I don't qualify. My BMI might be on the cusp of registering as overweight, but obesity? Nah! And if I were obese, I probably wouldn't want to drag all the way over to Boston Medical Center for free to do something about it.
  • Sufferers from Postherpetic Neuralgia. Well, I hadn't heard of it, either. It means pain after shingles, and this one pays $1K. It doesn't quite say who's running the study, or where it is, but at least it pays something. Too bad I don't have Postherpetic Neuralgia, although I did have shingles once, years ago, so I am postherpetic, I suppose. (And talk about painful! It was bad enough having the pain with the shingles, let alone afterwards.)
  • Parents of children with ADHD, who Children's Hospital of Boston will pay $100 to test a computer data gathering system. (My guess is that these folks would be doing the study for the altruistic  heck of it.)
  • Those with arthritis of the knee, which is worth "up to" $250 from an outfit called Medvadis. I have arthritis of the middle toe of the left foot, but that's about it.
  • Folks aged 18-30 with no sleeping problems, who Brigham and Women's will pay up to $2,050 for a mere 9-10 days living in the lab.  $2,050! All I can say is, age discrimination.
  • Healthy 18-49 year olds to studying how probiotic interacts with flu vaccine. Only $135, and Tufts-New England Medical Center is just a hop, skip and a jump away. But, once again, I am aged out. (Not to mention that I might feel a little creepy "working" as a guinea pig in the same hospital my father died in.)
  • Fibromyalgia sufferers who Tufts is also looking for. Short money - $200 - but you get twenty-four free tai chi and stretch training classes out of the deal. Alas - or, lucky me! - I don't have fibromyalgia. (And if you read the naysayers in yesterday's NY Times article on the new drugs being marketed for it, neither does anybody else, as half of the doctors interviewed in the article believe  that fibromyalgia is pretty much a variation on the theme of hypochondria.)
  • Those over 40 who are overweight. Yet again, Tufts is looking for a few, good overweighters - and at least they're not discriminating against us middle-agers. $400 for 4 months of taking "daily supplements".  Wonder what's in them.
  • Those being treated with Zyprexa, whatever that is. The study is being done at McLean Hospital, which is a psychiatric facility, so I can guess. Up to $760 for 11 visits, but getting out to McLean would be a real schlepp without a car. Plus I'm narrowly aged out of this one, which tops out at 55. Not to mention that I've never even heard of Zyprexa.

When glance through the medical research want-ads, I'm usually fantasizing about the ideal research project, in which you receive decent pay to spend a few weeks resting in a pleasant place - maybe not the Bellagio, but a step above a Budgetel - lying around watching TV, reading, and eating food that may be institutional but is somewhat healthy (and free). The only requirement is that, on occasion, someone with the bedside manner of Dr. Welby comes in and takes your pulse.

Apparently not.

Or so I learned from reading "Guinea-Pigging"  a recent New Yorker article by Carl Elliott.

As with everything else in the world, a lot of studies are being outsourced to commercial research outfits - and some are even being outsourced - not surprisingly - to India.  And a lot of the ones that are still Made in the U.S. are made in the sweat shop equivalent of a research center.

Before it was shut down, one commercial research company held drug trials in a former Holiday Inn in Miami, which was described as: a downtrodden neighborhood...paint was peeling from the walls, and there were seven or eight subjects in a room...administrative members worked behind a window, like gas-station attendants, passing documents through a hole in the glass.

What? No Dr. Welby? No Consuelo? (For those who don't remember Dr. Welby, Consuelo was his nurse.)

The New Yorker article also describes how guinea-pigging has become something of a way of life for people.  Professional guinea-piggers are:

...usually people who need money and have a lot of time to pare: the unemployed, college students, contract workers, ex-cons, or young people living on the margins who have decided that testing drugs is better than punching a clock with the wage slaves.

Most of the paid gigs are in Phase 1 clinical trials, and involve taking unreleased/unapproved drugs to determine their side effects.

So that's where they get that "side effects may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, drowsiness, sleeplessness, or the urge to get up in the middle of the night, eat a pint of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia and drive to Peru" information they recite at the end of every drug commercial.

Pharma side effects aside, the jobs that pay the big bucks are naturally those that have more than a bit of unpleasantness to them. Miserable as some of my jobs have been, not one of them has involved inserting something tubular into any of my orifices - although some have, most assuredly, deprived me of sleep.

It's good to know that guinea pigs have their own web site and jobzine, Guinea Pig Zero, which is the brainchild of activist Bob Helms.

Guinea Pig Zero is an occupational jobzine for people who are used as medical or pharmaceutical research subjects. Its various sections are devoted to bioethics, historical facts, current news and research, evaluations of particular research facilities by volunteers, true stories of guinea pig adventure, reviews, poetry and fiction relating to the disposability of plebeian life. ...this journal keeps in mind that we volunteers can and should maintain an awareness and a will, because if we do not, we will fall victim to the evil uses devised for us by scientists who forget that we and they are of the same species.

I'm not sure how current the info is on GPZ, but if you're thinking of becoming a professional guinea pig, you ought to look here first.

As for myself, I will continue to glance at the guinea-pig ads in The Metro, looking for the perfect opportunity, which would include a comfortable bed in a clean, Holiday-Inn-ish room - not a former Holiday Inn, by the way - with a private bath. It would involve three decent and varied square meals a day (plus fruit, Oreos, rice crackers, and high quality dark chocolate for snacking). There would be tea - nothing fancy, plain old Lipton's will do. It would provide a modestly-sized TV with DVD player and every movie I didn't see in the last two years, starting with Gone Baby, Gone. Plus wi-fi.

At least 12 hours would be allotted to uninterrupted reading, and there would be time off for good behavior to take walks in the lovely and verdant park across the street. It would be spring. And nothing would be inserted in my body, other than the three square meals and snacks.

They wouldn't even have to pay me.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Mao as manager...

Well, I'm finally catching up on my reading of The Economist, which I like to get to every week, but which slipped out of my reach during the holidays.

I picked up December 22nd edition with some amusement, given that Chairman Mao was pictured on the cover wearing a Santa Claus cap (with a shiny red star on it). Ah, Photoshop!

The article "Mao and the art of management" matches the cover picture in spirit and wit, positioning Mao as a role model for bad managers, the ones that not delight their customer, crush competitors, and create vast wealth. They struggle. They stumble....Where is the role model for the manager who really needs a role model most - the one who by any objective measure of performance cannot, and should not, manage at all?

Let's put aside that Mao was a strong man brute, responsible for the deaths of many, and the oppression of most, Chinese citizens, and let The Economist give him his due as manager. Here's why they think he's an exemplar of "four key ingredients which all bad managers could profitably employ."

For starters, there was Mao's "powerful, mendacious slogan", Serve the People, a slogan the Chairman used to rationalize whatever cold-blooded, calculated act he was up to and, of course, to bludgeon his people. The Economist likes this one not just because Mao so clearly didn't live by it, but because it "expressed precisely and succinctly what he should have been doing."

I've never experienced dishonest sloganeering on quite this grand scale in my business career, but I sure have known plenty of disingenuous executives and managers who spent an awful lot of time telling us underlings just how and why the organization placed such a high value on its people, when in truth the only time they really focused on "the people" was when they had to reduce expenses. Decreasing headcount by lopping off heads! It may not work, but it's fun! It's easy! Beware of any company whose credo is "human capital is our most important asset."

The Economist gives Mao props for his "ruthless media manipulation," through which he built his personal "brand value." Think Little Red Book. Think Mao jackets and caps. Think Mao swimming in the Yangtze River to "prove" he was in good health. Mao(Or think of what cut and paste photo manipulation looks like without Photoshop. It does kind of look like he's standing up in water wearing a Mao jacket, doesn't it?)

For The Economist:

The brand-building lesson is that a clear, utopian message, hammered home relentlessly, can obscure inconvenient facts. Great salesmen are born knowing this. Executives whose strategies are not delivering need to learn it.

Obviously, there's only so far that a business exec can go - nowhere near as far as Old Mao could have gotten. But we've all seen puff pieces and brilliantly spun articles on The Great Leader - some CEO or another - that bear no relationship whatsoever to what, as it turns out, is actually going on in the company. (I'll have to go back and search for flattering articles on those fin-serv execs who got bounced after losing ka-billions in the mortgage meltdown. Bet they were geniuses during the go-go years.)

Then there's Mao's willing "sacrifice of friends and colleagues."

Who among us hasn't witnessed this time and again. And I'm not talking about at the highest levels of power, either. How often have we seen the big guy start tossing people into the fire the minute the flames get anywhere near their butts.

Actually, an unfortunate aspect of this practice is that is is not always - or usually - peers (not to mention superiors) who get treated in this way: it tends to be underlings. (They were expendable....)

And, of course, we've all seen people in senior positions take out someone under them who poses a threat - perceived or actual - to their position. (As if getting rid of someone competent makes you more competent...)

The final Mao attribute is my favorite: "activity substituting for achievement. "

Policies [under Mao] were poor, execution dreadful and leadership misdirected, but each initiative seemed to create a centripetal force, as everyone looked toward Beijing to see how to march forward...The business equivalent of this is restructuring, the broader the better. Perhaps for the struggling executive, this is the single most important lesson: if you can't do anything right, do a lot. The more you have going on the longer it will take for the disastrous consequences to become clear.

Hmmmm. This seems to be a problem not just at the top of an organization, but throughout it. Just think of all those whirling dervishes you've worked with who seemingly make themselves indispensable by doing a lot of "stuff", by their perpetual willingness to take on even more "stuff", to be always around - always available. (Gulp, I believe I've even been one myself.)

In any case, a funny riff on Mao that I have not doubt done an injustice to.

I've written on managerial role models (and anti-role models) before. Some I've worked with and for, some - like Bruce Springsteen and the Red Sox' Terry Francona - I obviously haven't. But the presence of Mao-ist management in so many organizations is reason enough not to want to go back into the corporate world full bore any time soon.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Going inkless

Maura Welch over at Boston Filter had a post yesterday on the new ultra-cool Polaroid ink-less printer, which was showcased at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Now, I'm not normally the gadget type - nor am I anyone's idea of an early adopter. Not me, I tend to be a second-waver - or a scrounger. My first cell phone, microwave oven, and digital camera were hand-me-downs from those upgrading to cooler technology. (Thanks again to my friend George for that phone, clunker that it was; thanks to Kath and Rick for the microwave which, as you know, lasted until last year; and for the new-to-me digital camera which I finally figured out how to use.)

While I won't exactly be running out to get one, the new little Polaroid camera is really a honey. And make that an inkless honey, with the inkless technology coming from Polaroid spin-out Zink, which I blogged about last summer.

Here's a bit more from the CNN article on the show.

The 8-ounce printers, a bit bigger than a deck of cards, are due to go on sale around back-to-school time for about $150, Polaroid and Zink announced Monday at the International Consumer Electronics Show.

Once connected to a phone or camera by Bluetooth wireless or the USB port, the printers need less than a minute to churn out 2-inch-by-3-inch pictures, which can be peeled off a backing and used as stickers. Sheets of paper for the device will cost about 40 cents each, less if bought in bulk.

Be sure to click through to the video, where you get to see it in action. (You also get to see a new "smart massage" chair; a voice-activated GPS system, of which you ask "Where am I" [Talk about Pink Slip blog-fodder!]; and something that turns your cell phone into a projector.)

What I really love about this little Polaroid printer is what it bodes for the future.

Just think, once inkless printing technology makes its way into the consumer printer market, the printer cartridge disappears, and with it the entire concept of shaking the printer cartridge to get a few more weeks out of it. Years from now, doddering old croakers will talk about the onerous task of shaking the printer cartridge, but in a tone that is somewhat prideful about how in the sensible and frugal days of the early twentieth century, we didn't just toss away a printer cartridge when the warning message came up and told us to replace it.

No, in our time, the doddering old croakers will say, we knew the value of $75 (minus the $3 recycle kick-back for bringing back the old cartridge). So instead of following the printer's order to go out and spend money, we instead shook the living daylights out of that cartridge, thus deferring our purchase of a new one by a good 3 weeks. And if you add up all those 3 weeks over a few years time, you find that every 5 years, you manage to save $75 - a good $15 a year that we could spend on five gallons of gas or a few Frappuccinos.

Ah, the old croakers will say, in 2008 we knew the value of $15. And, in our day, we never just threw anything out, other than half the vegetables we bought in bulk at the farmers' market and let rot in our refrigerators. And last year's must-have electronic device because this year's comes in colors and is a little thinner. And all the plastic cups those Frappucinos came in.

Other than that, the old croakers will say, we weren't a throw-away, disposal culture like we have now....

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Case of the Missing Blog Post

Well, if you're wondering where today's blog post went, it was accidentally posted over on Opinionated Marketers. There's a slight glitch in the blog writer I use (Windows Live Writer) in that, if you have multiple blogs, it automatically assumes that a newly-opened post should go to the last blog you posted to - even if you saved it under the correct blog. Grrrrrrr.

Between this and the Blue Screen of Death-Plus problems I'm having with my BRAND NEW LAPTOP. Grrrrrrrr.

I look forward to tomorrow's technology-free drive home from Syracuse.

Well, okay, it won't exactly be technology free. I will have my cell phone with me, and my iPod plugged in one ear.....

eBoss Watch

A few weeks ago, I got a call from a former manager of mine, introducing me to an opportunity at a company where he has been consulting for the last few years. I was very happy to hear from W, and jumped at the chance to work with him again.

W is someone who ranks high in my pantheon of good bosses.

I'm sure that he would not be everyone's cup of tea, but I have had few managers who were as hands-off and trusting as he is. He's also the person I've worked for who is least likely to call a firedrill. Thus, when there really was something that had to be done in a drop-everything-do-it-now-hurry, you were always willing to do it because you knew it was important.

Finally, he was someone who I never saw throw anyone in his group under the bus when the flames were licking close to him - other people might conceivably get thrown under, but never those who worked under him.

I worked for W in two different companies, and he can be a controversial figure, that's for sure. I've certainly seen him piss loads of people off - mostly because he has a forceful personality which he uses to advance his strongly held positions.

But when it comes to working for and with him, W is right up there in my book.

With a few exceptions, I have been pretty fortunate when it comes to the managers I've worked for throughout my professional career. (My factory working-waitressing-office temping-and other non-professional gigs are another story. Any number of dreadful bosses there.) For most of my business career bosses, the good and decent attributes have outweighed the bad and assholish ones.  When I have had bosses I couldn't stand and just plain hated working with, it seldom lasted. Once I'd given "can't we just get along" a reasonable shot, I would figure out how to get out from under - either intra-murally or by leaving the company.

Of the several really terrible managers, I must note that there were, with only one exception I can think of, people who actually liked working for them. Chalk it up to a personality conflict, I guess.

As for my own performance as a manager, I'd guess that a majority of those I managed thought I was a decent enough manager, but that there were at least one or two who considered me a major league jerk.

So I don't know what to make of Asher Adelman's eBossWatch, which offers disgruntled employees the opportunity to anonymously rate their bosses "so that you can warn other people about a bad boss". Gruntled workers can "recommend a great boss."

Adelman invites people to answer a few questions about how their boss stacks up with respect to "open and honest communication," caring, concern for your career development, trust and respect, whether they like working for him/her, and whether they would recommend that boss as good to work for.

Please note that eBossWatch is measured and professional in its approach. It is not set up to function as a trash talking board in which people can just get in there and flame someone. (No lack of opportunity elsewhere in the online world for that, of course.) Still, it does provide nasty and brutish folks an easy way to hop on and malign someone in a not particularly constructive way.

And just how much insight do you get into a prospective boss if, say, one person has rated him along a few lines - good or bad.

No, I think that boss evaluations are best done the old-fashioned way: networking, word of mouth.  And by observing the office chemistry and picking up clues from other people you talk with during the interview process. (I once interviewed for a position running a special project for a founder/senior partner of an analyst firm. On the interview trail, several people told me that most people in the firm a) hated the project; b) thought the guy I'd be working for was a jerk for undertaking it; and c) that I had virtually no chance of succeeding. I took the hint. Even if the boss-man wasn't a jerk by my standards, I knew that this was going to be one hell of a political maelstrom to walk into.)

I might find eBossWatch more interesting - and more informative - if it provided tips for discerning a boss' style: what signs to look for, what questions to ask. Or true-life stories (without naming names) of bad-boss behavior, and how people coped with (or reformed) it.

I don't know how successful Adelman has been in getting people to actually use eBossWatch as a boss evaluation venue - or whether there's really a need for this sort of site.

Asher Adelman's quite laudable mission for eBossWatch is "to improve the lives of people by helping them avoid hostile workplaces and abusive bosses."

Methinks that eBossWatch is not quite the way to go about it, but, then again, I'm someone on the backstretch of my career. For the MySpace-Facebook-YouTube generation in which folks are more accustomed to public exposure of every little aspect of their lives, and to people taking anonymous whacks at them, something like this may well become the norm.


Asher Adelman also runs a site called JerkFreeJobs, which I posted on the other day. (As you'll see for yourself if you read it, I personally don't believe that there is now or ever will be such a thing as a Jerk Free Job, but that's because I view jerk as a generally mild term, and jerkhood as something we are all, on occasion, capable of.)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Keep on Truckin'

Yesterday, I drove from Boston to Syracuse. This is as easy-peasy a 300+ mile road trip as you're ever going to get, especially when it gets past Albany and the terrain goes flat.

The day was lovely - a January thaw's January thaw, with temps in the 60's - and I had the iPod cranking, and the window open. And since I dumped my personal vehicle, which was a standard, and was in an automatic rent a car, I just flicked into "D" and drove.

What I did was look at a lot of trucks going by, and here are the things that stood out on this trip, truck-wise.

The Boston-Syracuse route is usually flooded with WalMart trucks. Maybe it's the time of year - since the holiday crap-fest is over, there's less to deliver to the maws of WalMart - but I saw far fewer WalMart semi's than the norm. Since our economy seems in large part based on crap-consumption, what are we to make of this sign.

But the WalMart truck indicator was the only really deep truckin' thought I had on this trip. My other truck sightings were less meaningful and far quirkier.

On the Mass Pike, I saw a colossal flat bed trailing hauling lobster traps. I believe I saw this after the New York City cut off in Sturbridge, so I don't think the traps were heading for the Jersey Shore. They seemed to be heading for someplace west of the Hudson.

These were, by the way, the old fashion wood slat lobster traps.

Whatever else global warming has brought us, it has not yet brought us MidWest lobsters. Yes, the shorelines eroding, but it hasn't gotten that far yet. So, since lobster trappers in New England seem to have gone over to the new fangled plastic wired cages, I'm guessing this truck load was heading to someplace that was going to turn them into coffee tables.

In any case, a peculiar sight.

I also noticed several trucks from Teal Express. What I liked, from a marketing perspective, about these trucks was that the word "Teal" was written in the color teal. Although if you go to their web site, there's an awful lot of red, I still liked their embracing teal.

Which got me thinking about Yellow Trucking, which has always struck me as an odd name for a company whose signature color appears to be, well, orange. Okay, as we all know from the kindergarten color wheel, there's plenty of yellow in orange. Still, it's odd. (Although their version of yellow is kind of like what used to be called yellow when it was used in electric Christmas candles).

The final truck that caught my fancy was a big old truck from a company called Platonic Transport or Platonic Trucking. They had kind of a catchy motto, which I unfortunately don't remember. But what was really interesting about their truck was the cartoon of the naked female in high heels, giving that over the shoulder peek-a-boo, Vargas girl look.

I googled platonic trucking/transport, and got nada on the company. I even tried Platonic Delivery, but that just yielded Aristotle's Platonic Attitude Toward Delivery, which I couldn't bring myself to click through. (That was a long drive I took today, and, gee, I just can't imagine what was being delivered in Aristotle's day. I mean, like, they didn't have all that WalMart crap. Or even trucks to deliver anything in. I mean, like, what's Aristotle got to do with delivery? What-ever.)

But (what else) there's a blogger out there who came to rescue on Platonic's tag line:

When it comes to transportation, we don't fool around.

This was spotted by a blogger named Wic, who I believe is a trucker himself.  Here's the link to Wic's post. Thank you, Wic, for having gotten the tag line, and for assuring me that I wasn't hallucinating when I saw this truck. (A bit more googling revealed one Wicasta Lovelace, poet/artist/writer/multi-blogger and Obama guy.)

The highway is, indeed, a varied and wondrous place.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Jerk Free Jobs? Can there truly be such a thing?

With the  publication of Bob Sutton's "call it like it is" No Asshole Rule - nearly a year ago, now - which I had quite a bit to say about, it's no surprise that someone has hopped on it and has set up a site for jobs in companies that are certified to be jerk free.

Asher Adelman is that someone. He recently launched a site called JerkFreeJobs, in which he provides job posting from companies that have been certified as Great Workplaces. JerkFreeJobs is a sub-site of eBossWatch, an anonymous manager-rating service that Adelman founded.  According to Adelman, his site: offers the only job board which limits its job listings exclusively to companies who are certified great employers.  At Great Workplace Jobs, users won't find companies with jerks, bullies, or abusive managers.  All companies are certified jerk-free before being eligible to post jobs on our site.

In order for companies to be eligible to post jobs on eBossWatch, they will need to demonstrate that they have either received a "great workplace" award, or an external consultant will need to confirm that the company provides a great working environment free of toxic and abusive bosses.

My quibble with this is not that there aren't such things as great workplaces where part of the culture rests on providing a non-abusive and toxic-boss-free work environment.

My quibble with Asher Adelman's JerkFreeJobs is a semantic one.

Jerk is way too neutral and mild a term for what he's talking about.

Jerk-free job?

No such thing.

That's because we're all capable of being jerks, at least on occasion.

Jerk-free work at Cisco, Microsoft, AFLAC, Genentech, Starbucks ? (I recently asked a relative who works at Cisco and she assured me that, as wonderful as it is, there are definitely jerks there.)

No way!

Which is not to say that these companies don't take abusive and toxic behavior seriously, and do what they can to weed out those who make life miserable through policies that they rigorously enforce.

And wouldn't we all rather work for companies that had such policies?

I've been fairly fortunate in my career in that time spent in truly toxic situations were brief.  But most places I've worked have had a few people, generally in senior positions, who by anyone's definition of the word (other than, perhaps, their own) are what, as Bob Sutton  has so well pointed out, can only be characterized as assholes. 

What's the big difference?

In my book, jerk-ish behavior includes occasional transgressions like:

  • Snapping at a junior person because you're in a bad mood
  • Not piping up at the "big meeting" to make sure the right person gets credit
  • Blabbing about something you weren't supposed to
  • Doing a little more politicking than is really and truly required
  • Grabbing a plum assignment when the other person who might have liked it is distracted
  • Making a request that we really know is unreasonable
  • Sweeping some dirt under the rug
  • Etc. (I'm sure we can all fill in plenty of our own blanks on less than noble and wonderful things we've done at work.)

On the other hand, an asshole is one who makes work life miserable for those around him or her - and especially for those who are beneath them in the pecking order. Assholes go on tirades. they make tyrannical requests. They put people down. They're disrespectful of people - of their privacy, their space, their time, you name it. They subtly and not-so-subtly undermine those around them. They make people, in general, feel terrible about themselves and the work they do. Etc. (I'm sure we can all fill in plenty of our own blanks on assholish behavior.)

Of course, it might have been difficult for Adelman to get job listings on his site if it were called "AssholeFreeJobs", but jerk-free just doesn't do it for me. As I've written before, when it comes to calling an asshole and asshole, accept not substitutes.

So from a marketing perspective, my advice to Adelman would   be too rethink his name. Abuse-free, toxic-free, Great Place to Work - any of these would better express what he's talking about here.

I could also use more information on just how a company gets certified. I would think that he could get some mileage out of having companies proudly bear a seal of approval on their approach to creating and maintaining a civil work environment.

But I do think that Asher Adelman is on to something important here. Life's too short and we spend too much of it at work to put up with abuse in the workplace.


Here's some links to a few of my posts on this topic:

The LIttle White Book


All Worked Up

Building a Civilized Workplace

I think I might be ill...

On Tuesday, I'll be heading to Syracuse on business - driving, not flying, so I won't need an air sickness bag.

I have, however, been on one business trip when I did need one.

It was many years ago, and I got on a small, Bar Harbor (a now defunct airline) puddle jumper from Augusta, Maine to Boston after an extremely ill-advised (in retrospect) red-sauce Italian food lunch. Mama Mia!

In any case, the weather was a bit rainy and foggy, and the little plane had to circle Boston for a bit. The little bit became a longer bit, and we kept circling on. While the plane was circling, my stomach began moving in a slightly different direction - more or less an up and down lurch. Heavy Italian food is generally nothing for my stomach-of-iron, and I definitely felt that - despite the circling and lurching - I'd be okay. Just to be on the safe side, I thought I'd make sure that I had the air sickness bag in hand, so I reached into the magazine-and-air-sickness-bag holder on the seat back for the bag-of-interest. As I pulled the bag out I realized that it had already been used - and was still full. Half empty? Half full? I can't be sure, but in this case I'm thinking at least half full.

Well, the realization that my bag was pre-used was more than my iron stomach could withstand. Grabbing an empty from the next seat over, I proceeded to lose that Italian lunch. (No great loss - it wasn't that good to begin with.) I can still see the hairs on the back of the head of the man in the seat in front of me. I had never actually seen anyone's hair quite literally stand on end.

From that point on, Bar Harbor became Barf Harbor, that's for sure.

In any case, I was reminded of this episode in the annals of my personal business travel, when I saw a Boston Globe article a couple of days ago on a fellow from Hull (a fun, beautiful, and at least partially raffish sea-side town south of Boston) who is curator of The Air Sickness Bag Virtual Museum.

Steve Silberberg uses his site to display images of the over 2,000 barf bags from his collection - not all of which are from airlines. Apparently, companies use them as promotional giveaways, and they're occasionally used in political campaigns - for obvious reasons.

As for the illustrations below: Steve doesn't hawk much in his gift shop, but he does have a pretty nifty looking poster for sale for $10. I didn't make it through all 2000+ bags, but I did pick a couple off - based solely on the name of the airline - Buddha Air and Phuket Air. Now, the purple alone might make a Buddha Air flyer a bit queasy, and as for Phuket Air - resonant name aside - what's not to like about a smiley face and wanting to save the world. By the way, the Smiley Face was invented in Worcester, Massachusetts, but that is another story entirely. (Steve didn't have a Bar Harbor bag for this show and tell.)

FinalPoster BuddhaWithGirlA PhuketAir2003A

As with so many other curious hobbies, the Internet really opened this one up for Silberberg, who is by no means the world's only collector.

He has estimated that he possesses the 10th-largest collection in the world, not bad for someone who has never traveled outside of North America. (A Netherlands man named Niek K. Vermeulen holds the Guinness World Record, with 5,180 bags.)

A lot of the bags in Steve's collection comes from other hobbyists/traders, are listed on his site as "Patrons of Puke," and from the drop down list of patrons, there are plenty of them.

Alas, the branded air-sickness bag is going out of style, with airlines substituting generics. Hopefully, for Silberberg's collection, the promotional and political bags will continue on. (Living as I do in a state that borders on New Hampshire, I've been bombarded by TV ads for the current slate of candidates, and should probably have a bag or two around to get me through tomorrow's voting. If I hear yet another "I'm Mitt Romney, and I approved this ad" I think I just might be in need of one.)

Silberberg is hoping to open up a roadside attraction type of museum in Hull at some point. This town would be the perfect location for this sort of museum. Hull has definitely been missing something since the Lahage's salt water taffy shop closed. (Nantasket Salt Water Taffy...Oh, So Good...Tastes Mighty Fine: I still have one of the boxes, which was designed in the 1920's and never changed. Note to self: take boat to Hull's Nantasket Beach some day this summer. Ride merry-go-around. Play pinball. Find some other brand of salt water taffy.)

In addition to revealing that he has never traveled outside of North America, Steve Silberberg notes that "ironically" he is single.

Ironic might not be the right word here, but unsurprising sure is. A quick glance through his list of Patrons of Puke reveals very few names that sound female - and collecting air sickness bags doesn't strike me as a gay male type of hobby, either.

"I've found it's a really good litmus test that shows if I will get along with somebody," Silberberg said.

I can see that it would be. You never know, but if you're looking to get unsingle, I don't think that air sickness bag collecting is the best way to go.

But on the positive side, as obsessions go, this one seems harmless. It doesn't seem like it would be that expensive a habit to support. As long as you don't trade in bags that are fully-loaded, it's reasonably inoffensive (although the political ones might not amuse everyone). And I've got a suspicion that most of the hobbyists have a sense of humor.